Wednesday, May 5, 2010

NASA is Cool

There were two fun, the-future-is-now sort of technology stories in the news today.

One is about ion propulsion, which is being used on the NASA Dawn spacecraft (in space as we speak). Ion propulsion uses energy from the sun to ionize (add or take away electrons from) atoms of xenon. The ions then create an electric field, and the electric field makes the spacecraft go (provides thrust). This form of propulsion is awesome because it doesn't need huge fuel tanks (so the spacecraft can be relatively small and light) and because it continues to gain speed, so eventually it can move really fast.

Here's NASA's description:
And here's an awesome video about how the guy who worked on this spacecraft got the idea from Star Trek:

The other really cool technology is a plasma rocket. It ionizes propellant (xenon, argon, or hydrogen) using radio waves and then heats the ions to create plasma that is up to 20 times hotter than the surface of the sun. Instead of using metal nozzles, you control the exhaust using magnetic fields. This engine hasn't been in space yet, but last year it was run at full power in a vacuum chamber in a successful test. This engine is awesome because it could go way faster than the types of space propulsion we have now - with a plasma rocket you could get to Mars in 39-45 days instead of 6-9 months.

Here's more about this technology:

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